Walking Your Talk: Teaching Non-Competitive Yoga
One of the things I really loved about yoga practice from the get-go was the fact that it is not meant to be competitive. My early teachers were all quick to emphasize that comparing yourself to your neighbors is not helpful. As a decidedly Type B introvert, I found this to be a relief. We Type B introverts do not always fare well in a world that celebrates getting ahead. We’re just not as good at it as our Type A friends, and when it’s not in your nature to strive it takes a whole lot of ungraceful effort to do so.
But yoga was different. Along with the lovely, spacious feeling I felt after practice, the de-emphasis on competition signaled that I had found my home in yoga. On top of that, I have always had a flexible body, inherited from my gymnast dad.
Flexibility has long been intimately tied to my identity. My two sisters and I all inherited my parents’ athleticism, but only I could fall into effortless splits. My bendiness was one of the ways I got noticed. There was no need to compete for attention with my extroverted sisters, a pursuit that was doomed to failure. Without having to say a word, I could get attention just by doing some crazy-looking thing with my floppy body.
So when I started practicing yoga, I realized that in certain classes I commanded attention simply by what my body could do. Sometimes my hypermobility brought praise, sometimes I became the example of what not to do if you like healthy joints. Even though I was not consciously striving and competing, I was heavily invested psychologically and emotionally in the fact that my body was capable of “advanced” poses.
This led to a cognitive disconnect in my teaching. I was sincerely committed to the idea of non-competitive yoga. I understood the wisdom of this—safety of the student, the way striving and discontent takes you out of the moment, the futility of comparing yourself to a genetically different person whose history is entirely different from your own. I got this—at least intellectually.
Yet, at the same time I was telling students that yoga is not competitive, I was demonstrating the opposite. For example, 15 years ago, when I taught Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), I never failed to demonstrate the full version (see the above photo), a pose that on average 90 percent of my students would never be able to do, simply because of the underlying structural realities of their lumbar spines, hip joints and shoulder joints.
I could rationalize demonstrating the pose by saying that I meant to inspire them, to show them what is possible. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the full version of Pigeon is not possible for probably most students. When I reflected some years later on my motivation for demonstrating “advanced” poses, I realized it was likely I did this to establish my superiority as a yogi—to use my bendy body to get attention and respect. At the time I would have chafed at the thought that this was my motivation. It went against everything I think of as responsible teaching.
When I finally owned up to my tendency to show off without meaning to show off, the realization was humbling and freeing. I had to admit that I was not walking my talk. Sure, it’s fine to show individuals whose bodies are capable of fancy poses safe ways to approach these poses. But I realize that demonstrating them for my classes at large is fraught with problems—for my students and for me.
The Problem with Being a Yoga Show-Off
When teachers show off, it causes at least some students to feel inadequate. Many will feel that they are not capable of doing yoga at all if they can’t do fancy poses. How many times have you heard someone say she can’t possibly do yoga because she is not flexible? Demonstrating fancy poses gives students the erroneous idea that yoga is about performance and that “advanced” yogis are the ones who do “advanced” poses. It may even cause some students to try to force themselves into poses of which they are incapable, which can lead to injury.
As a teacher, showing off fancy poses in class reinforced my attachment to my identity as a bendy person. That attachment caused me to subscribe to the “more is better” theory of flexibility. For almost two decades, my practice was about gaining more and more flexibility. This created an unhealthy instability in my body, a lack of balance that surfaced as I entered my 50s. And clinging to an identity as a bendy person, a stiff person, a happy person, a sad person, a smart person or a dull person—all these identities limit our ability to see the truth of our vast, infinite being.
Are your words congruent with your actions when you teach? How do you bring words and action together while encouraging your students not to be competitive?